How to Build a Genealogy Research Plan

You were just going to do a quick look up before going to bed. Before you know it, it’s 2:30am and not only did you not find what you were looking for, you feel frustrated that you didn’t make any progress. (Been there, done that.) Sometimes that feeling of frustration is because we didn’t have a good research plan.

A research plan is more than a to-do list. It’s a way of approaching a genealogy problem and working out a way to solve it. In the process, you’ll be less frustrated (because you won’t constantly be wondering what to do next) and more productive (because you won’t waste time spinning your wheels).

Let's look at how to build a genealogy research plan.

1. Set a Goal

If you want to build onto your house, you don’t tell the architect, “Just build something.” He might build a 3-season porch, when what you really wanted was a home office.

Have a goal in mind with your research — the more specific, the better. “I want to identify Susan’s maiden name” is a clearer goal than “I want to know everything about Susan’s family.”

2. Look at What You Have

The architect and the contractor aren’t going to just start drawing up the plans for your new home office. First, they’re going to see what they’re working with — where the office will attach to the house, the structure that they need to tie into, the ground where they will building upon. (Call before you dig!) If the ground isn’t suitable, they’re not going to be able to build that massive home office you envisioned.

It’s the same with our research. Without having a clear picture of what we already have — both in terms of quantity and quality of materials — it’s impractical to move further. You could be building on quicksand.

3. Shore Up Where Needed

After surveying, your architect and contractor might say, “We can build your awesome new home office, but first we need to build a retaining wall to prevent further erosion in the back.”

This is where we can start making a to-do list.

If you found holes in your research — like having great-grandma only in the 1930 census and the 1880 census — fill in those gaps first. (You might find that the answer you were looking for is found in there!)​

4. Brainstorm and Design

The contractor isn’t going to take 2x4s and randomly nail them together. (At least, we hope not!) Instead, he’s going to work off of a set of blueprints based on the architect’s design. That design is also going to dictate what materials are used — brick, stucco, cedar, etc. You get to go to the home improvement store and pick out the finishing details.

This is where it gets fun.​

You have a research goal and you’ve set a good foundation for more research. Here is where you compare your goal to what you have and brainstorm about new materials to explore. “The 1910 census says he was a Civil War veteran. I need to identify his unit and order his pension file.” “Great-grandma’s death certificate didn’t list the parents, but her obituary says she was survived by her sister Naomi Smith living in Yuma, Arizona. Maybe if I research Naomi Smith, her death certificate will list their parents.”

5. Adjust to the Conditions

Not everything goes according to plan. That fireplace you wanted in your new home office? Your local building code says a chimney can’t be close to a window — which is where it would be. So instead of a fireplace, you install a wood-burning stove, which you can vent in a way that meets code.

Same thing with our research. Maybe a courthouse fire destroyed the land records; this would be a time to dig deeper into tax records. The area you’re researching in didn’t keep birth records when your ancestor was born? What about baptism records of your ancestor’s church?

This is also where we can prioritize. It isn’t practical to search for everything at the same time. As we continue to evaluate what we have and compare to our goal, we can make better choices of what to look for next. If I’m trying to determine when a man died, I’m going to look for his Civil War pension file before digging through his early land records.

The Research Plan Builds the Framework

As you’re going through the five parts of building a plan, you’re engaging in the research process. What the plan does is give you a framework to build upon. It will help keep you on track and lessen your frustration. Even if you do stay up until 2:30am, you can rest assured that it was for a purpose.

how to build a genealogy reseach plan - pinterest

22 thoughts on “How to Build a Genealogy Research Plan

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Amie! Isn’t it amazing how much more productive you can be when you have a plan of what to look for?

    • I can’t promise that a plan always prevents the 2:30am research sessions — sometimes I’m so wrapped up in it, I lose track of time! (But at least I feel productive 😉 )

    • That’s the cool thing about a plan — it’s easier to recognize when you’re starting to chase the bright shiny objects! (As far as they go, I think it’s good to allow yourself some time to chase them. It can give you some fresh ideas. And there’s nothing wrong with having some fun!)

  1. I could have used this earlier today. Four BSO’s arrived via email today, and I dove right into those documents without even deciding what I was trying to find out. No doubt I will visit them again when I have a plan in place. 😉

  2. Pingback: This week’s crème de la crème — February 20, 2016 | Genealogy à la carte

  3. Spot on. Thank you for an excellent, concise article. This will be a great resource I can point beginners to. I work at my local FamilySearch center and sometimes beginners need something straightforward like this to read later to remind them of the things they learned while at the center.

  4. Thank you Amy, great article. When I began researching in 1990, before online searching truly began, I always had a research plan. Sometimes traveling to the NC State Archives, 2 hours away, if only for 2 hours of research I’d have to have a detailed plan. Today its at our fingertips and those BSO pop up constantly. It’s hard to ignore them. Your article is a great reminder to seasoned researchers and well needed by new researchers!

  5. Pingback: February 2016 Newsletter | Travelogues of a Genealogist

  6. Pingback: Get Ready for a Research Trip | Family Scribe Blog

  7. I find myself torn between sticking to the goal I’ve set for myself and recordng all of the facts from each source as I find it, which takes me off in many directions. Advice? I’m enjoying this blog very much!

  8. Pingback: Friday Finds for 26 Feb 2016 – Copper Leaf Genealogy

  9. Thank you for this. I get so sidetracked sometimes that I ‘research’ for hours with no results. Hoping this will help. I’ve been meaning to come up with a plan for about a year. Low hanging fruit are gone and now it’s into digging.

    Also wondering if you have a template! Especially for recording or knowing what you have…step # 2 above. Maybe you have another article on this topic. So difficult to pull it all together in a format that’s meaningful and will lead you to your goal for your plan.

    • I use a research calendar (log) to plan my research. You can find a research log on and maybe Ancestry. There are many online and then pick one that may be useful to you.

Leave a Reply